GDC 2007: Sony Keynote


After waiting in a two-hundred-plus line (and that was just for media – non-press had to wait in a longer line), I can officially say one thing for sure about the Sony keynote: They have balls.

The giant, inflatable soccer balls started bouncing around in the front rows just a few minutes before Mr. Harrison stepped on stage, and I’m trying to decide what they’re supposed to symbolize: Sony’s up and down rollercoaster ride in popularity, or the weight of their recent attempts at PR, which, for all intents and purposes, have appeared to be full of hot air.

SCEA’s President, Phil Harrison, took the stage, addressing the assembled developer community right off the bat, suggesting that Sony’s efforts to date have been and will continue to be developer-focused, creating technologies which will be easy to access and develop for, and will be in wide demand. The soccer balls continued to bounce.

The theme for this keynote was “Game 3.0,” which, as Harrison explained, was likened to Web 2.0 in its focus on user-created experiences. Sony wants to “start a movement that starts to define what this means for our industry,” said Harrison, which, if true, would be one hell of a departure for the media giant.

Game 3.0 was defined as the era of the “connected device empowered by audiences and dynamic content and content built on open standards.” Which, again, would be quite an achievement for any organization, but for a company as steeped in the infamy of user-punishing practices as Sony, it would be nothing short of a full-on revolution.

“Our suggestion for how we might define ourselves going forward … about collaboration, about emergent entertainment powered by the audience.”

And that’s when he started talking about Home, the Wii/Xbox Live killer app first mentioned last week by Kotaku and, one is led to assume, was such a closely-guarded secret that Sony was willing to sever their relationship with the blog over its mention before today. That Sony again let the cat out of their bag last night at their own party is irrelevant – the rumors were completely true, and I remain unconvinced that anyone would have cared if it weren’t for the scandal – mainly because it’s largely unimpressive and obviously derivative.

Even the demonstration machine on stage refused to be swayed by the hype. “Can we bring up the Playstation 3 please?” asked Harrison, after his first attempt to boot up the new system failed. It was then discovered that he hadn’t been using the right machine, which, when the staff finally switched to it, crashed.

The guided tour of Home – once they ironed out the technical bugs – with, typically – an online usage policy disclaimer, torpedoing Harrison’s claims to be moving toward open standards right out of the gate.
What Home does is allow one to create and/or dress an avatar for oneself, which will then be used to represent one online. The overall feel is of an imitation of Second Life, with highly-customizable avatars and a plethora of online-distributed media content accessible through the 3D game world, voice chat and more. It also, perhaps unintentionally, recreates the laggy, glitch-ridden look and feel of the venerable online world, although many of the features looked to be quite slickly designed, and seemed quite cool, if meaningless.

One of these features was the “Hall of Fame,” featuring 3D “trophies” earned from in-game play. It’s a brazen attempt to out-glitz Microsoft’s innovative and successful achievement system for Xbox Live. “It’s about the entire network of games that are available for Playstation 3 … and see all the games you might be purchasing in the future.”

The game area features a number of user-definable arcade games (with additional content available for purchase), a virtual PSP, and the ability to upload and display any number of Sony-created content offerings, like movie trailers, etc.

But the heart of Home is in what Harrison called the “Private spaces,” user customizable apartments offered to each user. Harrison attempted to wow the crowd by snapping a digital picture of the audience, uploading it into the PS3 and adding it to the decoration of the “virtual apartment.” Unfortunately, again, the machine refused to cooperate. “Just pretend I snapped a picture and added it into the machine,” he said. And we did. And in my imagination, not only did everything work exactly as it should, I also cared.

“Just like in the real world,” Harrison joked, as he tossed an HDTV down a virtual flight of stairs, “your Sony [TV] is a reliable product.” And that’s, unfortunately what I took from this keynote presentation. Not that Sony was at the cutting edge, by replicating what’s already been done, but heavily laden with Sony products and companies, but that what they really wanted was a world in which all of their products and services worked, worked well together and were in demand. And if they can’t create that world by issuing press releases and making statements that seemingly defy logic, in, one assumes, an attempt to mold reality to their wishes, then they can do it online. And so they have.

Sony Home will be a place where everything and everyone is Sony. The only question is: Who’s going to care? What happens when you build a virtual world and no one shows? Sony is poised to find out.

Home is expected to launch this Fall.

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